The choice of Keppel Infrastructure Holdings to design, build, own and operate Singapore's fourth desalination plant is welcome news, particularly since it will be the first with the ability to treat sea water and fresh water. The plant, expected to be operational in 2020, will bring the country closer to its aim of meeting 85 per cent of its water needs through desalination and Newater by 2060. That would be so despite the demand for water then being expected to double. The plant will also help decrease the Republic's external dependence for its drinking water needs. A fifth desalination plant will add credibility to Singapore's efforts to achieve water security by anticipating and ameliorating the effects of climate change.
Singapore's strategy for water security flows out of what are called "Four National Taps". These are local catchment water, imported water, the highly purified reclaimed water better known as Newater and desalinated water. Desalination, which produces pure drinking water by moving sea water through membranes to remove dissolved salts and minerals, contributes significantly to the effectiveness of that integrated framework. Singapore, which turned on its fourth water tap in 2005 with the opening of the SingSpring Desalination Plant in Tuas, plans to double its desalination capacity by 2030 and triple it by 2060 to meet up to 30 per cent of its future water needs.
However, energy efficiency needs to be factored into these projections. Singapore will have to provide for its water needs with a keen eye on both economic and environmental costs. Desalination, like any other major industrial process, has an ecological impact. It has been argued that the energy used in desalination contributes to climate change-causing greenhouse gas emissions. Globally, there also are concerns about the consequences of desalination on the health of the marine environment. As an island, Singapore has to take such concerns seriously, even as it uses advances in technology to provide water for domestic and industrial use. It is reassuring that national water agency PUB's goal is to halve the desalination energy used in the future.
What will make a key difference to that future will be the direction of popular attitudes to water conservation. Scholars have noted that tariff increases, efficiency measures and awareness strategies play an important role in promoting the responsible use of water. But in asking what more can be done, a gap appears between principle and practice. In principle, most Singaporeans are well aware of the need to conserve water, which is nothing less than a strategic resource. In practice, however, plenitude of supply dilutes stringency of use. The very fact that the taps do not run dry begets the belief that they never can, unlike in countries where water scarcity is a fact of life. Singaporeans must beware of complacency.